Ffoton have teamed up with the very fine online Printing company MIXAM to outline everything you need to know about Digital photography zine printing. From choosing the right paper and binding, to adding bleed to your print file and much more.
The following guide, written for Ffoton by Mixam’s Adam Smith, provides a great overview of things you should consider and a ton of useful information to give your photography the best chance of looking just right on the printed page.
Creating a printed compilation of your photos is part-technical challenge and part-artistic expression. So we’re going to cover the basics, very clearly, succinctly and with diagrams to help you digest all of the technical information very quickly. Then we’ll show you 3 examples to help you make the artistic choices to enhance the reading experience of your photo zine. But if in doubt, stick with our recommended default options to get a great result.
If you are considering a black and white only zine - see the special section at the end of this guide for advice and settings to best reproduce your black and white photography.
It also helps to understand that whether you want to print a zine, magazine, book, that they are all booklets. And a booklet is simply sheets of paper bound together. What product name you then decide to give your booklet often depends on your content and your audience.
Papers come in 4 types; silk, gloss, uncoated and recycled. Each has their own look and feel, which changes how your photographs will look when printed.
Silk – The recommended default paper choice with a smooth finish
Gloss – A popular choice for photo albums, because it’s shiny and increases colour saturation
Uncoated – Gives a slightly rough look and feel and dulls colours a little
Recycled – A very rough feeling textured paper that dulls colours considerably
Silk paper is the safest paper for accurate photo reproduction, while gloss makes everything more saturated and shiny. Although uncoated paper has become very popular for photozines, because it gives a vintage look and feel. We wouldn’t recommend recycled paper for photos, because of the heavy texture and brown tint which dramatically dulls colors.
Paper thickness is measured in gsm (Grams per square metre). 130gsm is the recommended standard thickness. The thicker the paper, the more rigid the pages and the more ink it can hold. So if you’re printing night-time photos with lots of black, you’ll need to make sure your paper isn’t too thin because it has to hold all that dark ink. But if you have a collection of lighter, day time photos you could try thinner paper if you like.
If you’re printing a booklet, like a zine, we highly recommend giving it a proper cover with a laminated finish for both presentation and protection. A cover consists of 4 sides/pages of thicker paper at the front and back of your zine. Cover papers are available in silk, gloss, uncoated and recycled papers and use the same gsm measurement, but are considerably thicker than your inner pages - ranging from 170gsm to 300gsm.
Some people prefer not to add a cover, using the first and last of their inner pages instead. However, because these papers will not be laminated, the edges will scuff over time and the print may become marked or rub off. However, this can sometimes suit the popular vintage aesthetic of many modern zines.
And of course, you can mix different paper types for your inner pages and cover pages. It’s not uncommon for photographers to create zines with uncoated interior pages and a silk cover that’s matt laminated.
We always recommend that you laminate the cover of your zine, because it looks more professional and provides protection from wear and tear, as well as sweaty fingers, which can make the ink rub off over time.
Whilst there are many finishing options available, you only need to be concerned with the main two below:
Matt lamination – A smooth protective coating with a matt finish
Gloss lamination – A smooth protective coating with a glossy shine
Generally, people apply a matt lamination to a silk paper cover or a gloss lamination to a gloss paper cover because they enhance the aesthetics of these paper types.
A silk paper cover with a matt lamination is the recommended safe ‘default’ option to achieve the best reproduction. Meanwhile, applying a gloss lamination to a gloss paper will make your cover super shiny and increase the colour saturation.
Uncoated and recycled papers should not be laminated, as it defeats the aesthetic and feel of this paper type. Also, because the finish won’t adhere to the paper very well.
There are two types of binding typically used for zines. Most are staple bound because it’s cheap and effective. More professional photo zines, photo books or portfolios will be perfect bound to create a more premium looking product.
Staple bound – two staples hold all the pages together. Also known as saddle stitched binding.
Perfect bound – Pages are glued against a square spine, making a softback book.
A 20-page zine will usually be staple bound. It’s not always possible for a zine with a low page count to be perfect bound because there is a minimum total paper thickness required for the square spine to be created.
The recommended default paper thickness is 130gsm. So you would need at least 36 sides to achieve the minimum thickness for your booklet to be perfect bound.
Your chosen binding will also have an impact on the way you design your pages. So this is something to consider when creating your print file, as additional bleed and quiet areas may be needed.
Print File Setup
Also known as your artwork file. This is a multi-page PDF file containing all of your final page designs, in running order.
The total number of pages (or sides) in your zine must be a multiple of 4 - as each sheet of paper printed will produce two pages on each side of each paper sheet (a single image printed as a spread still counts as two pages).
For example, the lowest page count on a A5 zine would be four pages - with a single A4 sheet printed on both sides and folded once to create four printed pages. In contrast, nine sheets of A4 paper printed on both sides and folded in the same way would result in a 36-page zine: 9 sheets x 4 pages per sheet = 36 pages.
Although printing machines can process JPEGs, Word documents and other low res files, we strongly recommend uploading PDF files exported using the ‘high quality print’ setting from your chosen Adobe or publishing Application. Images should be at least 300dpi (dots-per-inch or pixels per inch) as anything lower will look grainy with a low resolution when printed.
But first, you need to decide what size you want your zine to be and how it will be bound. Then you will be able to set up your bleed and quiet areas to make your file ‘print ready’.
In the UK, the most popular dimensions for zines are A4 and A5.
Your chosen size and portrait or landscape orientation of your pages will determine the area available for your design.
This is the line on which you expect your materials to be cut as the printing machine trims the edges of your paper to the desired size. So if you upload an A4 size design, the trim line will be the edge of the A4 paper. However, there will always be slight manufacturing variances when your paper is trimmed, which is why you need to add bleed to your print files.
Irrespective of opting for an A4 or A5 size zine, you should always add a 3mm bleed area outside your trim lines on every side of the document.
Your design also needs to completely fill this bleed area. This is because the trimming blade can fall slightly outside of the trim line, trimming your paper within the bleed area.
Imagine that your page design has a blue background which ends at the trim line. We print on white paper. So if the trimming blade falls outside of the trim line, into the bleed area, which is empty, you will end up with a white line along the edge of your blue page.
Preparing your print file means building in a margin of error into your design. While modern printing machines are incredibly accurate, preparing for slight discrepancies will ensure that there are no unpleasant surprises.
Regardless of the paper size you have chosen, we recommend creating a quiet area 5mm inside your trim line. Keep all important design elements and text outside of this quiet area.
Aesthetically, having design elements too close to the edge of your page can look messy and unprofessional. It’s also possible for the trimming blade to fall inside of the trim line (into the quiet area) as it is to fall outside of the trim line (into the bleed area) chopping off part of your design.
If your photo zine is going to be perfect bound you should increase your quiet area to a total of 10mm away from the binding edge. All other edges will have a quiet area of 5mm. This is to accommodate the square spine and prevent important details from being lost in the spine gutter. This applies to your cover design too.
Staple bound zines on the other hand, don’t require an additional quiet area on the binding edge, as the staples don’t take up as much room and therefore the standard 5mm quiet area on all edges is quite sufficient.
RGB vs CMYK
Getting your colours just right is important in colour photo printing, so you need to know about converting RGB to CMYK.
The key thing to remember is your computer screen creates RGB colours using light, while professional printing machines (Digital and Offset-Litho) create CMYK colours using ink - just like mixing paint.
Adobe InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop (and alternative photo imaging applications) allow you to switch RGB colours to CMYK colours. Use the CMYK Profile: Coated GRACoL 2006 (ISO 12647-2:2004) for best results when printing with Mixam.
Be aware there will be some inconsistency because RGB and CMYK are very different colour profiles, so we recommend manually fine tuning your CMYK values until you’re happy with them. You would typically request a printed proof of your zine before committing to your final print run. If printing through Mixam, you can take advantage of the free test prints service which allows up to twelve pages to be printed at your desired size.
We appreciate that’s a lot of information to take in, so here are three examples of common photo zine configurations. And don’t forget that the total number of sides must always be divisible by 4.
1. Standard Zine
Silk paper 130gsm
Silk cover paper 170gsm
3mm bleed area on all sides
5mm quiet area on all sides
If you’re looking for something ‘safe’ for your first zine, we recommend choosing silk paper with a matt laminated cover to create a good quality booklet.
2. Premium Zine
Silk paper 130gsm
Gloss cover paper 170gsm
3mm bleed area on all sides
5mm quiet area on all sides
Additional quiet area totalling 10mm on the spine side of each page including cover
Perfect binding usually goes hand in hand with a gloss cover paper and a gloss laminate with silk text paper inside for a high-end finished product which looks and feels luxurious.
3. Uncoated Zine
Uncoated paper 170gsm
No cover paper
3mm bleed area on all sides
5mm quiet area on all sides
These are all the essentials you need to know for printing your zine. We’ve covered paper types, laminations, bindings, bleed and CMYK colour and given three good examples.
The key things to remember are:
Convert your colours to CMYK
Include 3mm bleed and 5mm quiet area on all pages
If in doubt, choose silk paper and a matt laminated cover
Congratulations! You are now empowered to take full control when it comes to printing your photo zine. No longer must you rely on physical trips to your local printer. Now you can compare printing prices online and make your budget go further.
But if in doubt, there’s no harm in asking other photographers which specifications they chose for their zines. We’re all here to help one another.
Black & White Printing Guide
Most print jobs use full colour but there are certain jobs where black and white printing is more appropriate. If you are trying to decide which would work best for you and want to know how to make the right decision, this guide will help you to understand your options.
CMYK Printing - full colour
Black (K) Only Printing - single colour/black
Standard Black (K) vs Rich Black (CMYK) values
When not to use rich black
Colour printing is also known as CMYK printing and the 4-colour process. This is because it uses four different colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black - which can be combined to create a range of other shades. Colour printing is a great way to give your project a vibrant look.
Sometimes you will want to use an extra intense black, known as ‘rich black’ which is darker than the black you get from using black ink on its own. It can be created using CYMK colours for images that really need the extra depth.
For some projects, you might want to include a few pages in black and white in an otherwise full-colour booklet. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, printing those in CYMK is better value than using just K (black) and printing them separately.
Black (K) Only Printing
If your booklet is all going to be black and white, then you only need to use black ink.
Black is the K in CYMK (it stands for ‘key’), so the others aren’t used at all.
This does mean that printing in black and white is cheaper than using full colour, but using only K ink will not give you the kind of depth to your blacks as you would get with the full range of inks.
When you are working on your print files, you will want to consider your ink choices in relation to your paper type and the finish you have opted for. These will have an impact on the type of black which is most suitable and the ink saturation that you will need to get the look you want.
Standard Black (K) vs. Rich Black (CMYK) Values
As one of the most-used colours in printing, you could be forgiven for thinking that all blacks are the same, but if you see standard black and rich black together you will be able to see the difference. When you add cyan, magenta and yellow ink to the pure black ink, the end result is a more saturated colour.
When you are looking at it on your computer screen, there probably isn’t much difference between the two types of black, but there will be a noticeable contrast when they are printed onto paper. Compare these two images to see how different the types of black can look on paper.
When not to use rich black
Even in a full-colour project, rich black should be avoided for anything with fine lines including small text and artwork. This is because there are tiny variations in the way the printing plates are aligned which can leave small imprints of the combination of colours around the edges. This is known as ‘ghosting’ and leaves a blurry effect which is commonly seen in newspaper printing.
How can I spot ghosting?
These images show what ghosting can look like when you use CYMK colours for small text instead of ‘greyscale’ which would only use back ink. When you choose rich black, all four inks are still used which means that four separate ink plates are layering the different coloured inks on top of one another. If there is even a tiny difference between the way the plates are aligned, you will be able to see the ghosting effect of one or more colours protruding around the edges.
This image shows what this would look like if the magenta plate is misaligned and you can see that this is much more likely to happen with smaller font sizes and fine lines. For this reason, standard black using only one ink colour is a better choice as there is only one ink plate used instead of four.
Ink Saturation and Density
One of the main reasons that the images on your screen will look different from the printed results will be the level of ink saturation.
For the best results, we recommend avoiding extreme saturation values so we have some advice on which will help you to ensure that your work looks exactly how you want it to.
Whichever printing method you opt for, the finished project will rarely look great if you have chosen very low or high saturation of any one colour. If you opt for a saturation lower than about 10%, you risk getting nothing printed at all and at the other end of the scale, over 90% saturation will simply look like solid colour. This is particularly true when printing in black and white using only black ink.
In CMYK colour, the K stands for ‘key’ which refers to the key plate, the metal plate that is used to print the details of an image. In CMYK printing, this is the one which prints using black ink.
Saturation too light
The pale grey line (below) might be easily visible on your computer screen, but this is 8% saturation and therefore 2% below the recommended saturation levels. This means that it could be nearly invisible when printed, whereas a small increase to 10% will make it easily visible in print.
Saturation too heavy
The image below shows the smaller, darker circle clearly visible inside a slightly lighter circle and would be printed using only black ink. However, in this example, the inner circle’s saturation value of 100% will make it indistinguishable from the 91% saturation of the outer circle, meaning that the print version of this will just be one large circle with no contrast between the two.
This happens because your computer creates the colours displayed on the screen using combinations of red, green and blue light, known as RGB colour, but printing presses use ink to produce colour by mixing cyan, magenta, yellow and black in various proportions.
When you opt for ink saturation above the 90% limit, the result will look darker in print than it does on your computer. This means that it is important to recognise the dangers of relying on what you see on your screen and ensure that you follow print recommendations to get the results you want.
Ink saturation scale
Now that you understand the saturation scale for single colour printing you can make practical decisions on the saturation you need for printing in black and white. The ideal saturation levels for printing in full CMYK colour are slightly different.
When you choose CMYK colours for your project, you will get the option of choosing from a scale of 0% to 100% with each of the four colours. You can adjust the levels of each colour individually and the more you add, the darker the end result will be.
This applies to each pixel of your print file, with the four colours being individually adjustable and this means that for any given pixel, you can have a total saturation level of 400%.
To give you an example, the blue-green colour we use for the Mixam logo is made up of C:65 M:0 Y:28 K:0 – with 65% cyan, 0% magenta, 28% yellow and 0% black, the total saturation out of the possible 400% is 93%.
The blocks of colour below show the range of colours that can be achieved with varying degrees of saturation of the constituent colours, from 100% saturation to 400% saturation. By increasing the % of each colour at the same rate, you change the total saturation level and the colour as well.
Once you get to more than 250% saturation, the amount of ink used will result in heavily saturated paper. This will increase the drying time needed and the amount of ink required to get the fullness of the colours and can make the process more expensive as a result.
Best saturation level
Although different saturation levels can look different on your computer screen to how they will appear when printed, the difference between 91% and 100% black will be nominal, as will the difference between 300% saturation and 400% saturation.
For this reason, we always recommend sticking to a saturation level between 150% and 250% in total for all four colours. This will give you a vibrant result when printed without overdoing it and ending up with muddy colours or excessive costs.
Saturation is about carefully combining colours, so be wary of overdoing it unnecessarily. You can get a rich black with all the depth you need using saturation of less than 200% so long as the values of the four colours are well-balanced.
Some paper types have a much higher capacity for absorbing ink than others. Silk and gloss papers are the industry standard, but recycled and uncoated papers will soak up a lot of ink very quickly which will give you very dark colours and can result in a slight bleeding of the ink. This is worth considering when you choose your paper type as you want it to be suitable for the effect you are hoping to achieve.